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Week In Politics: Trump Campaign Shake-Ups

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And we begin with politics. It's been a week of upheaval for Donald Trump's presidential campaign - another week of upheaval, that is.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Polls show he's had trouble building support beyond his white middle-class base. Today at a rally in Michigan, his crowd was mostly white. But he spoke directly to African-Americans, asking them to take a chance on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I say it again, what do you have to lose? Look, what do you have to lose? You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Things were quieter for Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton this week, but she still had her share of controversy.

SHAPIRO: Earlier, Audie and I spoke about the candidates and all the week's political news with E.J. Dionne us now for some analysis is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review.

CORNISH: So Eliana, I want to start with you 'cause the National Review has made its opinions known throughout this campaign season about Donald Trump. But the introduction of a new voice in the Trump campaign, with the head of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, joining that campaign, introduces a voice from the media landscape you know well. How did you read this voice being added here?

ELIANA JOHNSON: You know, the campaign came out insisting this was not a shake-up but an expansion of the senior leadership team. And I think with Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman - with his resignation today, we now have confirmed that this is indeed a shake-up.

So we now have Steve Bannon, who is the chairman and CEO of breitbart.com, taking on the position of CEO of the Trump campaign. And I actually don't think this is going to be an enormous change for the Trump campaign - of the essential DNA of the campaign.

What we really had before was Paul Manafort pushing back against Trump, trying to shape him and mold him into a president and Trump really chafing at that. What Breitbart was doing in the media - they incubated the primary voters for Trump with a real nationalist, populist, anti-immigration message.

And Trump was able to jump to the head of the parade when he entered the campaign last year. And so I think that Bannon going out of the campaign - what it really is is a shedding of pretenses that Trump was ever going to pivot and become a different candidate in the general election.

And now we know all the journalists who were so excited to write that story about the new Donald Trump will have to abandon, you know, the idea that Trump is going to become anybody different in a general election than he was in the primary.

CORNISH: E.J., we've got Eliana giving up on the word pivot, which I welcome - totally overused. How are you feeling?

E J DIONNE: Yeah, meet the new Trump, same as the old Trump. I mean, I broadly agree with that. But I think there is a radicalism to Steve Bannon and to Breitbart that ought to disturb all kinds of people, including conservatives.

I mean, they have given really strong voice on the conservative side to the so-called alt-right, which is really a very extreme right - white nationalism. Breitbart - when all the Republicans were saying, yes, let's take the confederate flag down in South Carolina, Breitbart was saying, no, let's honor the tradition represented by this flag.

And so I think there will be a radicalization of an already radical message. There will also be sort of an unlimited kind of campaign against Hillary Clinton, I mean, that Breitbart and Bannon represent - you know, make scorched-earth politics look gentle.

And so maybe that's where Trump was going to go anyway. But I think this is going to toughen up the tone even more.

SHAPIRO: You know, Manafort's resignation this morning came after the Associated Press last night reported that Manafort's lobbying firm received payments to advocate in the United States for pro-Russian Ukrainian officials, which some legal experts have said may have crossed a legal line.

Eliana, we knew that Manafort did this sort of work. But it never seemed to bother the Trump campaign before. Why now?

JOHNSON: You know, I think what happened was, really, this was the excuse for Trump to layer Paul Manafort. He put Steve Bannon above him and Kellyanne Conway, the new campaign manager, below him.

And Paul Manafort simply isn't a number two. I had a Trump aide tell me a couple weeks ago that he believed that what Trump would do is put somebody above Manafort. And that would be the signal for Manafort to step down. This guy wasn't going to report to anybody.

I don't think Trump had any problem at all with with Manafort's associations. And if you look at Corey Lewandowski, who preceded Manafort as campaign manager, and Steve Bannon, who came after him, they all really have a sort of bullying, thuggish way about them. And, you know, I don't think it's unfair to say Trump has a type.

But what happened was a drip, drip, drip of news reports about Manafort's ties that gave Trump the excuse he needed to get rid of somebody whose style he was rubbing up against and didn't like anyway.

CORNISH: Right. And polls didn't help, (laughter) I'm sure, right?

DIONNE: And also, I think that, first of all, we can now judge all Trump campaign statements by the Manafort standard. As of 24 hours ago, the talk was - no, we're just expanding the campaign. Suddenly, those statements were - to use the Nixon-era phrase - inoperative.

Secondly, this connection with the Ukraine and now these new legal questions about Manafort, I think, are very dangerous to Trump because - and we've talked about it before in previous weeks - Trump's closeness to Putin in his - the way he talks about him, his policies, which seem very consonant with what Putin wants to do in terms of weakening NATO or weakening the European Union - I think that Manafort was already raising questions that won't go away just because of his departure about Trump's Russia connection or, at least, Russophilia. But it was getting embarrassing. And since they clearly wanted to get rid of him anyway, it was very convenient for him to leave.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn to the Democrats and the Clinton Foundation's announcement that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, the foundation will stop accepting donations from corporations or foreign governments. Eliana, if those contributions are problematic once Clinton becomes president, why aren't they problematic during a campaign?

JOHNSON: I think they are problematic during a campaign. And frankly, they're problematic to Hillary Clinton's candidacy. And they've taken a toll on her favorability numbers. And if Donald Trump could not step on his message every other day, they would be doing her quite a bit of damage.

But frankly, the damage is done. The issue was that foreign governments were giving - were lining the coffers of the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state. So I really see the new decision as nice but really beside the point.

They're going to have to, of course, cut ties with the foundation if she became president. But, really, the problem is all the donations foreign government gave while she was secretary of state, which remain tremendously problematic.

CORNISH: E.J., is this move sending the message that it is intended to?

DIONNE: I think if it's a first step, it's good. If it's a last step, I don't think it goes far enough. I truly think that you have an unprecedented situation here. Former presidents have foundations like this that do good work.

But you don't have former presidents whose wives then become president. And I think they're going to have to sever all ties. I've suggested they temporarily rename it the Eisenhower-Kennedy Foundation.

Get some Eisenhower-Kennedy family people in charge. They can refer to it - borrow from Prince - formerly known as the Clinton Foundation.

CORNISH: Talk about a rebranding, E.J.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DIONNE: Right. As long as...

JOHNSON: Well, E.J., I think it's important to note it is the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. It's not just the Bill Clinton Foundation.

DIONNE: Right. And I just think it won't work. The questions are going to keep arising. And the Clintons should know that. Even if they think that all their enemies take acts of the angels and turn them into acts of devils, the fact is this is going to raise questions 'cause they're going to be raising lots of money.

I think they've got to figure out a way to push this aside - promise to push this aside for the duration of a Clinton presidency.

SHAPIRO: How about the questions that have been raised about the U.S. payment of $400 million to Iran on January 17, the same day Iran released four American prisoners?

The State Department insists this was not a quid pro quo - that the U.S. and Iran had been negotiating the payment for months through an international court in The Hague. Let's listen to spokesman John Kirby at the State Department yesterday.

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JOHN KIRBY: These two tracks came together in a very finite period of time. And it would have been - given the fact that Iran hadn't proved completely trustworthy in the past - it would've been imprudent and irresponsible for us to not - since we knew this payment was coming and coming soon - to not hold it up until we made sure we had our Americans out.

CORNISH: Eliana, what does all this do to a deal that the Obama administration had hoped to see as a legacy accomplishment?

JOHNSON: You know, the Obama administration truly wanted this deal to go down in history. And I think there will always be an asterisk next to it now. The thing I can't really wrap my mind around is that the administration started fielding questions about the timing of this cash payment seven months ago and they're insisting that this was all aboveboard, transparent.

Not only that, but it was noble to attach a $400 million cash payment to the release of our hostages. And if that's the case, I don't understand why they weren't transparent and aboveboard about it from the outset and why it took reports from The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press to get them to be candid about this, you know, seven months later after the fact that. That, I think, is troubling to a lot of conservatives, not only conservatives but to all the critics of press and the questions of John Kirby at the State Department fielded yesterday were from, really, mostly from the Associated Press.

SHAPIRO: E.J., the RNC is today calling on Secretary Clinton to disavow what the Republican Party calls a ransom payment. Do you think she should?

DIONNE: No, I don't think it's a ransom payment. I mean, obviously so much of how you view this is how you view the Iran deal. And to Audie's question, we're not going to know what this deal looks like for about 10 years. But for people who supported the deal, and I was one of those, you look at this and you say, look, the administration has always said we were trying to settle everything at once. If there is something that falls apart, the rest of the deal won't go through.

This money was Iran's money. We were going to have to pay it to Iran at some point anyway. That's the administration's argument. And that, in a way, if they're negotiating for the hostages, I wouldn't want them to release the money until they're sure the other part of the deal is in place.

I suppose they could have put out more information earlier, but they were upfront that this payment coincided in time with the release of the hostages. So I think this really is a question of which - how do you view the deal, and that's how you're going to view this story.

SHAPIRO: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thanks as always.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review. Good to have you here.

JOHNSON: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.